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Veggies...Mind Blowing Ways They can Improve Your Health.

May 7, 2019

Veggies have often been a largely neglected second cousin to the other food groups. With the evolution of understanding about the power of micronutrients and their influence on disease risk, things are starting to shift. Consumers are more savvy about their health and more than ever they are asking questions about food. They want to know where their food is coming from, how it is being grown, handled and processed - and above all they want to know "What's in it for me?"

 "If there is one change that I can make to my diet to improve my health, what would it be?"


When looking at the dietary habits of North Americans, most of us do not have adequate consumption of whole, minimally processed vegetables and fruit. In a survey of Canadians in 2004 (The 2004 Nutrition Survey), it was identified that the majority of Canadians do not eat the minimum recommended servings of vegetables and fruits and the majority consumed less the 1 serving/day of dark green or orange vegetables. www.150statcan.gc.ca In the United States, the What We Eat In America, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that 3/4 of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables and fruits. www.wweia/nhanes At the same time, the incidences of inflammatory chronic diseases such as hypertension, obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes www.diabetescarecommunity.ca ,as well as cancers are on the rise. www.cancer.ca


What are the benefits of vegetables?

We know that vegetables are loaded with anti-oxidant compounds called polyphenols and carotenoids. Polyphenols are naturally occurring chemicals found largely in fruits and vegetables. The polyphenol content of vegetables and fruits is higher in plants that are grown in natural conditions where the plant must defend itself against ultraviolet radiation or pathogens/competition with weeds etc.


Polyphenols have been shown in epidemiological research to offer protection against the development of cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases as they have the ability to switch on and off gene expression. This means that just because you might have genes that put you at increased risk for a certain disease (eg. heart disease or diabetes), doesn't mean that you are destined to develop that disease. Diet and lifestyle can have a profound effect on gene expression. https://www.ncbi.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2835915


Introducing the Polyphenol Play Team

Flavonoids are the compounds that give fruits and vegetables their beautiful rich colours. Quercetin is one of the most common flavonoids. Foods rich in quercetin include leafy greens, grapes, peppers, red onions, apples, some fruit juices, and green tea. Quercetin has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties while also improving lung, prostate, pancreatic and kidney function.


Stilbenes are generally found in low concentrations in the human diet. They are produced in plants acting as antifungal compounds - the best known stilbene is resveratrol found largely in grapes, blueberries and cranberries and chocolate (okay - not vegetables - but plant based sources) Resveratrol is also known for it's role in reducing risk of hypertension, heart disease and cognitive decline associated with dementia.


Organo-sulfur compounds found in onions, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage have demonstrated powerful antioxidant effects, anti-inflammatory, immuno-modulatory and anti-aging properties which means they have important activity in reducing heart disease, cancers and diabetes.


Lignans are diphenolic compounds that are considered to be phytoestrogens. They are present in seeds, grains and legumes. Current research suggests that they may reduce risk of certain forms of cancer.


But Wait ! There's MORE!

Aside from Polyphenols there are many other components of vegetables offering multiple health benefits:


Carotenoids are another type of antioxidant (eg. Lycopene and Beta Carotene) commonly found in tomatoes, asparagus, red cabbage and carrots. Carotenoids help to reduce cancer risk, promote healthy vision, alleviate neuropathic pain, offer protection to brain cells by promoting mitochondrial health, improve heart health, blood pressure control and bone density.


Betalains are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification supporting compounds that are found in beets and red cabbage and there is some evidence that they are protective against DNA damage.


Prebiotics are compounds that offer a food source to gut bacteria. Many of the fibres in plants are indigestible to the human gut and serve as food for bacteria to grow. The gut micro-flora (microbiome) has been demonstrated to be a very important part of healthy immune function as well as production of vitamins and short chain fatty acids that serve to reduce inflammation in the body.


Dietary Fibres offer bulk to the diet, producing more regular bowel movements, and decreasing risk of colon cancer.


Vitamins and Minerals are present in vegetables: Vitamin A, E, C, K, Folate, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous that are essential to a healthy cardiovascular system, bone density, muscle contraction, blood pressure, blood sugar control through their involvement in the majority of metabolic pathways in the body.


How much do we need?

Previous Canada's Food Guides suggests that Adults need to eat between 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruit/day and young children need to eat 4-6 servings. A serving is typically 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw. The newly released 2019 Canada's Food Guide has moved away from #'s of servings /day towards encouraging emphasis on eating more whole/minimally processed fruits and vegetables and reducing the consumption of animal products.


Don't despair - if you feel far away from the target, you are not alone. Some strategies to use to gradually increase your vegetable intake include:

  • Slowly increasing towards making up to 3/4 of your plate vegetables and 1/4 of it from protein sources.
  • Have a good sized salad with every meal
  • Try out one new vegetable recipe every week
  • Use veggies as a substitute for pasta (eg.spaghetti squash or spiralized veggies)
  • Start eating veggies for breakfast, add them to smoothies, add them to scrambles, or eat them as a side dish. (Yes that means you can eat Broccoli for Breakfast!)

Fresh or Frozen, Organic or Not?


When vegetables are grown in nutrient rich soils, locally grown and grown without use of pesticides and herbicides, they typically are higher in nutrient content and have a richer, more diverse microbiome. (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9289221&fulltextType=RA&fileld=S0007114514001366) The further the distance that foods are imported, the higher the opportunity for nutrient losses. Frozen vegetables can be processed quickly after harvest and quick freezing can preserve nutrient content for shipping longer distances.


Can't Afford To Buy Organic?

The EWG provides a list of Dirty Dozen vegetables which identify vegetables with the highest potential for exposures to herbicides/pesticides. www.ewg.org Choosing vegetables that are less exposed to pesticides/herbicides are generally healthier choices regardless of whether or not they are certified organic.


The more disconnected we are from our food supply, the less we know about how the foods are grown, the quality of the soil and the sustainability of the farmer's practices. Consider buying local. Check out your local farmers market. Can't get out to the Farmer's Market? Nanaimo has an online Farmer's Market - www.nanaimofarmersmarketonline.ca . Check it out! They have an awesome variety of seasonal produce , breads and other locally produced items. The best part is they deliver it right to your door.


If you live on Vancouver Island, you have the advantage of having a good long growing season with a moderate climate. Consider growing your own vegetables - Planters/pots/vertical gardens are all great ways to grow vegetables in minimal space. Consider approaching a neighbour about helping in their garden in return for the use of a little patch of gardening space or a % of their harvest.


Organizations like Nanaimo Food Share www.nanaimofoodshare.ca also offer Good Food box programs where you can stretch your food dollar for produce to $75.00 for a $10.00 monthly investment.


Vegetables are just one part of a balanced healthy diet and lifestyle. It takes a combination of healthy eating, exercise, sleep, quality relationships, stress management and healthy environments to optimize our health outcomes.


Tune in over the coming months for more Integrative Insights.


Shauna Prouten is a Registered Dietitian and Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified PractitionerTM. She is Registered under the College of Dietitians of British Columbia.


 This blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide individualized nutrition advice to readers and should not replace the care of a qualified medical practitioner to help you manage your health. If you require an individualized nutrition care plan, please see a Registered Dietitian for an evidence-based nutrition care plan.

Dementia: Can Diet Reduce our Risk?

January 22, 2019

January is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. There are currently more than 500,000 Canadians diagnosed with dementia with an additional 25,000 new cases diagnosed every year. This number is anticipated to reach 937,000 by 2031 (an increase of 66%). (1) World wide, the number of people with Dementia in 2016 was 47.5 million. It is estimated that this global total will reach 75.6 million by 2030 and 135.5 million people by 2050.(2) At the time my grandmother was diagnosed - most people didn't know what Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia was. People are living longer - and if you live over 85 - chances of getting a dementia diagnosis increases to more than 1 in 4 (26%) for women and 1 in 5 (20%) for men.  

Why is dementia on the rise?


The western diet with high levels of refined processed foods, saturated and trans fats as well as high sugar content and low intake of vegetables and healthy fats has been associated with increased obesity, insulin resistance and inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.(3)


Researchers have observed the relationship between inflammatory processes in the body and inflammatory processes in the brain. Studies have shown that the brain is filled with insulin receptors and research is identifying that there is a relationship between people who have insulin resistance and those experiencing cognitive decline. There have been observations that insulin resistance is present in the neuronal cells of patients with

Alzheimer`s disease.(4)(5).


What is Insulin Resistance?

When the body has to deal with chronic exposure to sugar in the blood, it produces more insulin to address the influx of sugars. Insulin is a hormone that helps to move sugar from the blood stream into body cells where it is either used as fuel immediately or converted to stored energy in the form of fat. In general, the body tries to maintain a steady amount of sugar in the blood somewhere between 4-6mmol/L. A basic theory of insulin resistance (IR) suggests that IR occurs when the body has to produce larger amounts of insulin to address the high circulating of sugars in the blood. This can be caused by a diet that is high in refined carbohydrates as well as other factors such as increased stress and sleep apnea that lead to higher levels of cortisol (stress hormone). Chronically elevated levels of insulin circulating in the diet lead to insulin receptors on the body cells becoming less sensitive to the effects of insulin. This, in turn causes the body to produce even more insulin to try to manage the glucose (sugar) in the blood. In the beginning, insulin resistance will not necessarily have any symptoms associated with it. Overtime, it may show up as more weight gain around the middle,difficulty losing weight, and more inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. (6)


Diet has been identified as one of a number of modifiable risk factors that are thought to contribute to an increased risk of dementia. What we eat and how we eat it can have a significant impact on inflammation. It is observed that in Greece, (a population that follows a Mediterranean style of diet, and has a less sedentary lifestyle), dementia in people over 85 is rare (approximately 75% less common than in people over 85 in the United States.) (7)The Western diet tends to be highly processed with high intakes of refined sugars, saturated and trans fats and a higher ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fats. The Mediterranean diet by comparison is a plant centric diet that includes more omega 3 fats from fish and nuts and other healthy fats (monounsaturated fats from olive oil) and high antioxidants from a rich variety of vegetables and fruit. Researchers have examined the effect that a combined Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet have on improving cognitive function and delaying cognitive decline. Known as the MIND trial, this research study followed 923 participants aged 58-98 for an average of 4.5 years (2-10 year range). It was identified that following the MIND diet closely led to a 53%reduction in risk of Alzheimer`s type dementia during the study period while those following it only moderately had a 35% risk reduction for AD. (8)


Does this mean we have found a way to prevent dementia?


Research is still in its early stages. Diet is only one of a number of factors that contribute to insulin resistance and other factors that contribute to inflammatory disease. There are a number of studies that have been done and are ongoing that have demonstrated that diet is having an impact on cognitive performance and may have a longer term protective effect on brain health. Two larger scale longitudinal randomized control studies on Swedish older adults (2223 participants over 6 years )(9) and Finnish geriatric populations (1260 participants over 2 years) (10) have demonstrated improved cognitive function when participants followed diets that are supportive of brain health. The Swedish study observed the effects of the Nordic Prudent Dietary Pattern on the prevention of cognitive decline and results indicated that high adherence to the Nordic Prudent Diet resulted in an 80% reduced risk for cognitive decline (MMSE score). The Nordic Prudent Diet includes the intake of non-root vegetables, apples, pears, peaches, pasta, rice, poultry, fish, vegetable oil, tea and water and discourages the intake of root vegetables, refined grains and cereals, high fat dairy products, butter/margarine, sugar/sweets/pastries and fruit juice. The Finnish FINGER study (10) looked at cognitive performance after 2 years of participating in a multi-domain lifestyle intervention (nutrition counselling, physical activity, cognitive training, and sessions with a nurse and a physician where metabolic and vascular risk factors were monitored)- with benefits being observed across a number of areas of cognitive function. The researchers from the Swedish study (9) further analysed their data and compared the effects of a brain healthy Nordic Prudent Diet alone to the effects of active lifestyle + brain healthy diet and found significantly greater benefit with moderate to high adherence to a brain healthy diet when coupled with an active lifestyle. An active lifestyle strengthened the effect of the brain healthy diet on cognitive function by two times and lowered the risk of cognitive decline (MMSE test score) by 30% (11).


What then is a Brain Healthy Diet?

Key features of brain healthy diets from the above cited research include:

  • Avoiding the use of refined processed carbohydrates, excessive intake of starchy foods, processed proteins and fats
  • Emphasizes whole foods that are rich in antioxidants, plant fibre and omega 3 fats from fish and nuts as well monounsaturated fats from olives/olive oils.

It is hypothesized that increased consumption of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables and omega 3's may reduce the neuronal cell damage caused by free radicals (12) Factors that decrease insulin resistance (avoiding simple sugars and foods that are considered high glycemic index - starches/processed carbohydrates/fruit juices/high sugar fruits) results in lower indicators of inflammation in the body (13). The Nordic Prudent Diet also emphasizes the importance of adequate hydration on cognitive performance (14)


More research is emerging on high fat, low carbohydrate diets (ketogenic diets) that are shown to decrease insulin resistance and promote weight loss. (15) In addition, researchers are examining the benefits of different patterns of intermittent fasting/timed eating and their impact on reducing insulin resistance (16) and potentially ultimately reducing risk of cognitive decline. Larger scale randomized control trails need to be done on humans to determine long-term health benefits of these approaches.


Diet is only one factor influencing the development of inflammatory processes that impact brain health but it is a significant factor that we have some control over. This is an exciting time where we are coming to recognize how powerful diet and lifestyle are to our health. Overall, to reduce our risk of dementia, we should adopt a diet that decreases insulin resistance, move more, laugh more, eat together, manage our stress and start implementing these lifestyle practices early.


1. Https://Alzheimer.ca>Latest-info-stats


2. World Health Organization Dementia Fact Sheet. http:www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs362/en/(2016)


3. Wang, M. et al. Metabolic inflammatory and microvascular determinants of white matter disease and cognitive decline


4. Steen, E., et al. Impaired insulin and insulin - like growth factor expression and signaling mechanisms in Alzheimer`s disease. Is this type 3 diabetes? J Alzheimer Dis 7, 63-80 (2005).


5. Moloney, A.M. et al. Defects in IGF- 1 receptor, insulin receptor, and IRS - 1/2 in Alzheimer`s disease indicate possible resistance to IGF - 1 and insulin signalling. Neurobiol Aging 31, 224-243 (2010)


6. https://www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6127253/


7. https://bluezones.com/2017/07/diet-dementia-foods-increase-decrease-alzheimer`s risk/


8. Di Fiore N. Diet may help prevent Alzheimer's: MIND diet rich in vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts. Rush University Medical Center website. (http://www.rush.edu/news/diet-may-help-prevent-alzheimers)


9.Shakersain, B., et al. The Nordic Prudent Diet Reduces Risk of Cognitive Decline in the Swedish Older Adults: A Population -Based Cohort Study. Nutrients. 2018 Feb; 10 (2):229.


10. Kivipelto, M., et al. The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER): Study design and progress. Alzheimer's & Dementia 9 (2013) 657-665.


11. Shakersain, B., et al. An Active Lifestyle Reinforces the Effect of a Healthy Diet on Cognitive Function: A Population - Based Longitudinal Study. Nutrients 2018, 10, 1297.


12. Gillette-Guyonnet S., Secher M, Vellas B. Nutrition and Neurodegeneration: Epidemiological evidence and challenges for future research. Br. J. Clin. Pharmacol. 2013; 75:738-755.


13. Blaak, E.E., Antoine J.M., Benton D. Impact of post prandial glycaemia on health and prevention of disease. Obes. Rev. 2012; 13: 923-984.


14. Masento, N.A, Golightly M., Field D.T. Effects of hydration status on cognitive performance and mood. Br. J. Nutr. 2009; 63; S64-S68.


15. Ma D, et al. Ketogenic diet enhances neurovascular function with altered gut microbiome in young healthy mice. Scientific Reports (2018) 8:6670.


16.Sutton, E.F. et al. Early Time Restricted Feeding Improves Insulin Sensitivity, Blood Pressure and Oxidative Stress Even without Weight Loss in Men with Prediabetes. Cell Metabolism June 5, (2018) 27, 1212-1221


Shauna Prouten is a Registered Dietitian and Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner.


This blog is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended as a direct or personalized nutrition care plan. This is not in any way intended to serve as medical advice and should not replace appropriate care and treatment by a qualified health practitioner.

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